It matters little where you open this book: the sentences you’ll see, the periods you’ll hear will surprise you by their unostentatious elegance, their clarity, the internal echoes everywhere, the modulation of the rhythms. Pollack’s obvious poetic mastery reminded me, at first, of John Ashbery, no less. However, on further reading The Beautiful Losses I became aware of some important differences. As far as I remember and can now figure out, Ashbery avoids statements that can be heartily assented to, or doubted, or refuted, or rejected in anger or disgust; when he writes about time, for example, in his “Blue Sonata,” he begins:
Long ago was the then beginning to seem like now
As now is but the setting out on a new but still
Undefined way. That now, the one once
Seen from far away, is our destiny
No matter what else may happen to us.
Time and the now have always been attractive but slippery poetic subjects about which it’s excessively hard to find anything wise or witty to say, but the generous and attentive reader can hardly find in the above anything to disagree with: yes, the now is new (unless one is mortally bored), and the future is still undefined, unfinished; and yes, “That now, the one once seen from far away,” is certainly our destiny, if we agree to think of it as the moment of death, or even if we agree to think of it otherwise. Those are all tautologies, if admittedly stylish tautologies. We can also call them timeless truths.
Much the same can be said of the final two lines of Delmore Schwartz’ “Calmly We Walk through This April’s Day”:
Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.
But Pollack is different. Let’s read him on the same subject, time and the now. I read his poem “Black Site” and reach the end:
Pain isn’t the point; some philosophers
Assert you don’t feel another’s.
Nor is it information
if it turns out he has none. The point, ultimately,
is procedure, as it must be for experienced
doctors. And privately to avoid
the sense of being too far away
from the world. Which you’re not —
the canteen has the right food, the rec room
games, and any past
is an inferior sketch that needs erasure.
Oh yes, I exclaim, how true! Long ago I realized that my students took it for granted that this age, their age, was not only technologically, but morally superior to all previous ages, and I thought of asking them to challenge that assumption. I didn’t ask because that could make them uncomfortable, and would have been asking for trouble.
“An inferior sketch that needs erasure” is not a timeless truth about past time: it was true until recently, but was manifestly false for a very long time, when people dreamt and poets sang of the Golden Ages and of the Garden of Eden, and the Castilian poet Jorge Manrique could write a little before 1479:
Cómo, a nuestro parecer,
cualquiera tiempo pasado
(How to our mind/ any time past/ was better.)
To try to determine the breaking point in time when the feeling that “any time past was better” is changed into its opposite, the past as “an inferior sketch that needs erasure,” is perhaps a task more proper to the historian of ideas than to the literary critic; nevertheless, I will venture a date: right before the disaster of Napoleon’s Grande Armée in Russia, and with the publication of Hegel’s Wissenschaft der Logik in 1812. In the Preface to the first edition of that book in Nürnberg we read:
“However, once the substantial form of the spirit [die substantielle Form des Geistes] has inwardly reconstituted itself, all attempts to preserve the forms of an earlier culture are utterly in vain; like withered leaves they are pushed off by the new buds already growing at their roots.”
This Geist and its substantial form have been rolling on, deaf to pieties, in exclusive accord to their own logic. Technologies have buried technologies in a mad race towards total mechanization and objectivity, and the end of history. That brings us back to Pollack. Here’s his entire poem “The Void” (p. 71):
Someone had left a book on the arm
of an Adirondack chair facing
the green. No — a book and
a notebook: open, notes in a round,
earnest cursive. And on a picnic table,
something I didn’t recognize
at first: a soap-bubble bottle,
open, the circle one blows through
attached to the lid. In this case too
I smiled at an old technology.
In the bough of a tree hung
a balloon — a vivid royal Mylar blue,
perhaps torn. It wasn’t high;
someone could have grabbed
the dangling string. I waited
for it to heal itself, reinflate
from a secret canister, detach itself
and, carefully judging altitude
and course, float back to its child;
it didn’t. Far away
a dog barked repeatedly,
then from a greater distance
more; perhaps it was saying
that all the wars were over, peace was nigh.
The poem opens with an Adirondack chair, a book, a notebook with cursive writing on it, and goes on with a bottle of soap and a ring for blowing bubbles left on a picnic table. “In this case too / I smiled at an old technology,” he concludes, and the word “too” pierces my heart. For it is true: not just making soap bubbles has gone the way of hoop rolling — children are busy with their i-phones — but books too are on the way out, and writing in cursive has disappeared: all handwriting is well nigh finished. As for garden furniture, who knows how long we’ll enjoy a breathable outdoors.
Today we feel the terror of the future, and to avoid it, we need and yearn for a time machine that will save us, transporting us to a safely distant past. Equivalently, since the physicists tell us that it is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the ineluctable increase of entropy that’s the only law responsible, as far as they can see, for time going irreparably from past to future, seeing the blue balloon, “perhaps torn,” Pollack rightly prays: “I waited / for it to heal itself, reinflate / from a secret canister.” He prays — in vain — for a secret canister that, avoiding the increae of entropy, would reverse time and return the balloon to its child owner. Even the distant dogs’ barking is hopefully interpreted as a sign that time is going all the way back, to the war-free Age of Gold.
This, then, is also a poem about being in time, and I asked myself, why is it called “The Void”? I would suggest the following as a possible explanation. Just as our attitude to time has undergone two historical changes, first from “all time past was better,” to “the past is an inferior sketch that needs erasure,” and then, finally, back to a flight from a frightful future, it so happens that our notions of the void have gone, too, through two drastic changes. Since Aristotle, it was generally believed there are no voids (natura abhorret vacuum), until the 17th century, when the vacuum pump was invented, and experiments showed that air could be taken out and leave a container pretty void. In our time, we are back to the view that there are no voids: every portion of space is teeming with fields, if not with particles.
I think there is a lesson to be drawn from all we have said so far, and it has to do with logical quantifiers — expressions like “all,” “none,” “there is no,” “there is one and only one,” and so on. Logicians and mathematicians use them constantly, and that’s their job, but, today, literate philosophers (by “literate” I mean those who do not belong to the fraternity of Carnap & Co.), and especially poets, should be wary when using them. Wary of aphoristic phrases such as “all times past were better,” or “life has one and only one purpose,” unless they be said tongue in cheek.
I was still marvelling at “The Void” and still mulling over how truth changes with time, when I was stymied on page 83 by a poem dealing with class inequality and lack of solidarity, “One Thing or Another,” of which here are the last ten lines:
Perhaps where the street
Goes out of sight it’s all ruins, but
you’re still being given power, water, light;
as if you were a trillionaire
with your own zipcode, in a sort
of modern castle, exclusively
bonding with other castles and fearing
only barbarians, who are never adequately
identified, though doing so
is the sole function of language.
Have I read well? Does it say that the sole, the only function of language is to enable us to identify the barbarians? There must be a mistake here: Pollack probably meant that a function of language is to identify the barbarians, which at least accords with the origin of the word “barbarian” (from ancient Greek βάρβαρος, one who did not speak Greek), and somehow the quantifier “the sole” crept in, turning that final verse into a scandal. For how can a poet, one of Pollack’s caliber to boot, demean his own art to just an instrument for determining who is a barbarian and who is not?
Yes, the quantifier “the sole” must have crept in. Yet, I’m not so sure. The whole issue of barbarism and civilization has been a sore bone of contention for quite some time. Being born and educated in Argentina, I encountered it in childhood, when I read a classic of Argentine literature, Facundo: Civilización y Barbarie, written by Domingo F. Sarmiento in1845, while he was living as an exile in Chile. A liberal and 33rd-degree Mason, friend of Horace Mann and, like him, called the father of education by his countrymen, President of Argentina in 1868-74, for Sarmiento the distinction between a civilized man and a barbarian had nothing to do with language: it had to do with wire fencing. The barbarians viewed the whole land as an open road, while the civilized landowners wire-fenced their property. Another, very different take on the civilized-versus-barbarian issue was sketched by the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy in his poem “Waiting for the Barbarians,” written in 1898. For Cavafy, as for Sarmiento, the distinction had nothing to do with language. The barbarians were a salutary wake-up call for a lethargic and decadent civilization, the sort of gadfly Socrates had been for the Athenians. But they failed to show up, and the poem ends (trans. by R. Pinsky):
Now what’s going to happen to us without the barbarians?
These people were a kind of solution.
In “One Thing or Another,” however, Pollack says that the barbarians “are never adequately identified.” There are no criteria, no wire fences or cannon salvos, to ascertain their presence. On the civilized-versus-barbarian issue he is closer, I’d say, to Walter Benjamin than to Sarmiento or Cavafy. Benjamin’s notorious assertion is from On the Concept of History, VII, written in 1940:
“There is no document (Dokument) of civilization (Kultur) which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.”
After the catastrophe of WWI, European civilized intellectuals, from Oswald Spengler to Paul Valéry, saw how fragile civilizations are, and by the time Benjamin penned the above paragraph, the Nazi barbarians had seized the land of Dichtern und Denkern and WWII had begun. That’s one factor behind Benjamin’s dictum. Another is Benjamin’s Marxism and his consequent genuflection before Hegel’s “substantial form of the Geist” which makes of history a special branch of logic: hence Benjamin’s nonchalance with logical quantifiers — “there is no document...” And Pollack’s “never” in his barbarians “who are never adequately identified...”
I have dedicated an inordinate amount of space to criticizing a single poem in this book, like one who, before a magnificent bouquet, gives his attention to a little leaf half torn. I’ll let it stand, so it will show how in this magnificent book, even the leaf where you’re pricked by a thorn will make you think.
Fred Pollack is the author of two book-length narrative poems, THE ADVENTURE and HAPPINESS (Story Line Press; the former reissued 2022 by Red Hen Press), and three collections, A POVERTY OF WORDS (Prolific Press, 2015), LANDSCAPE WITH MUTANT (Smokestack Books, UK, 2018), and THE BEAUTIFUL LOSSES (Better Than Starbucks Books, September 2023). Many other poems in print and online journals (Offcourse ’08 through ’22). Website: www.frederickpollack.com.